It's not one of our major mastheads, in fact most people have probably never heard of it, but this is the story behind an enduring family-owned country rag once described as "the best settlers' paper in the world".
For more than a century, The Murray Pioneer has been penned and printed at the same Renmark address in South Australia’s Riverland. The building may have undergone some major renovations, but its history has been retained in the battered pages of every edition stacked up inside.
The paper started out as The Renmark Pioneer – a fairly unremarkable rag, which was first printed in a tent in 1892. In 1905 Harry Samuel Taylor, a fruit grower turned horticulture writer in Mildura, bought the Pioneer and turned it around.
Taylor’s road to reporting was unconventional. Born into a well-off and influential family in Adelaide, he was by all accounts intelligent, idealistic and somewhat eccentric. As a young man, he joined a movement trying to set up a utopian socialist settlement in Paraguay, known as the “New Australia”.
“I think that really is what defined the character of Harry Taylor,” says his grandson Paul Taylor. “He was a very generous man and he was always battling for the underdog. So his newspaper reporting in the paper reflected that.”
While New Australia ultimately failed, Harry Taylor played a crucial role in putting South Australia’s Riverland on the map. As the editor of the Pioneer, he wrote prolifically on horticulture and agriculture, at a time when inexperienced irrigation pioneers were settling along the River Murray.
“They started off with their small holdings wondering how they were going to make a living,” explains Rod Kirkpatrick from the Australian Newspaper History Group.
“He encouraged them and informed them through the paper and helped them to achieve a good income.”
In just a few years, the once forgettable rag was being lauded by some as “the leading country weekly in Australia” and “the best irrigation and primary producers’ paper in the Commonwealth”.
Whether it was or not, there’s no doubt that under Taylor’s insightful and sometimes controversial editorship, The Murray Pioneer became a highly regarded and influential newspaper. While it didn’t always attract enough advertisers to make lots of money, it had an enviable circulation that in the 1920s, according to Taylor at least, was twice that of any other South Australian country paper.
Taylor died in 1932, but his legacy has lived on as the paper passed from one generation to the next, with his greatgrandson Ben Taylor now in charge. The Murray Pioneer is the oldest surviving family-owned rural newspaper in South Australia.
Only about one in nine rural newspapers in Australia are family owned; most are in the hands of Fairfax Rural Press and APN News and Media. The Taylors have also stepped up their presence in the industry, buying five other country papers to make their printing press more profitable.
Two years ago the viability of the Taylors’ business came under fire, when a newspaper war broke out. Fed up with rising advertising costs, a group of local businesses jumped ship and set up a rival paper called The Riverland Weekly.
“It was very hard to combat. Overnight we had a massive shift in advertising dollars to an opposition paper,” says Ben Taylor.
The Weekly’s chairman, Brian Smith, admits it’s been a battle for the new player, too, with some advertisers returning to the veteran publication.
“The other paper obviously wouldn’t lay down and say ‘well, you win’,” he points out.
It’s not just advertisers the Pioneer is battling to retain, with the digital age continuing to put pressure on the more traditional ways of sourcing news. While local content in country newspapers may give them an advantage over metropolitan publications, they’re not immune from falling readership.
“We’re all trying to hold our circulation, but, really, it’s a bit of an uphill battle,” says Paul Taylor, the former managing director of The Murray Pioneer.
However Ben Taylor is confident that the paper his great-grandfather dedicated so much of his life to, still has another generation or two in it yet.
“It’s still very viable... I think we’ve still got a good future ahead of us,” he says.
Kerry Staight is the South Australian reporter for the ABC's long-running rural affairs program Landline